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Plan to corral sex offenders canceled

The Department of Corrections planned a mandatory counseling session in Pasco on Halloween night to keep them off the streets.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- They thought it was a good idea: Get pedophiles off the streets on Halloween night. And it had been successfully tried before, two years ago in Hillsborough County.

This year, the state Department of Corrections wanted to try the same thing here.

Their plan: Order every convicted child sex offender on probation in west Pasco to a mandatory counseling session in the County Commission auditorium on Halloween during the hours when most children would be out trick-or-treating.

"It's just to make sure the pedophiles are not participating in Halloween," said the DOC's Joseph Papy.

But on Wednesday -- as a defense attorney prepared to challenge the plan and the Times began asking questions about it -- the DOC abruptly canceled the whole thing. The program had been in the works since August.

The first explanation of the cancellation was that the private company responsible for providing the counseling at the program had pulled out because of the inquiries from the Times. Later, Papy clarified the reason: The counseling company, Psychological Management Group of Tampa, said they were canceling over concerns that they would be providing services to some probationers not assigned to them.

"They felt they would be crossing professional boundaries," said Papy, the regional director of the DOC's Community Corrections program.

The company did not return a message from a Times reporter seeking comment.

A similar Halloween night program in Hillsborough County in 1998 also involved a single counseling provider and was attended by a number of sex offenders not covered by the company's state contract, yet the session went off without a hitch, Papy said.

Aside from professional boundaries, there also were legal questions about the Halloween night program planned for Pasco.

Bob Attridge, a local defense attorney, filed a motion challenging the program after several clients complained to him about it. The therapy session, Attridge argued, was merely a disguise for a mass illegal detention, and he questioned whether the probationers would receive any meaningful counseling.

Attridge said the corrections department doesn't have the power to order hundreds of people to a mandatory function in a government building when such a program isn't specifically included in the terms of their probation. "A judge is the only person who can detain people like this," Attridge said.

This month, the DOC notified convicted pedophiles by letter and telephone that they had to attend the Halloween program. Papy did not know how many people were contacted.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, also criticized the Halloween night program, saying the sudden cancellation of the meeting demonstrates the "haphazard, ill-thought-out, irresponsible public policies dealing with sex offenders in this state."

But Papy said the Halloween program was a legitimate attempt to reach out to convicted pedophiles, all of whom are required, as part of their probation, to undergo court-ordered sex offender treatment. The program planned for Halloween was just another mandatory counseling session, with the only difference being that it was to be conducted in a large group, Papy said.

Now that the program has been canceled, Papy said additional probation officers will be on patrol in west Pasco on Halloween, visiting registered child sex offenders to ensure they don't participate in the night's festivities. Child sex offenders are being warned not to answer their doors on Halloween and to turn off their lights to discourage trick-or-treaters, Papy said.

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